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Palm: Can it be a big player again?

The PDA was the executive toy of the Nineties. More than a decade later, its inventors are staging a comeback. Can they compete with Apple and BlackBerry? Rahul Odedra reports

With its hi-tech screen and compact size, this gadget was revolutionary. It fitted in the pockets of business leaders, media moguls, party people and trendsetters while keeping them up to date with whatever event was next on the social or professional calendar. A digital diary, a cyber contacts book, a status symbol, a Palm PDA (personal digital assistant) was the iPhone of its day. A decade ago, Palm ruled over the handheld market. In an era when interchangeable fascias were the most revolutionary things about the average mobile phone, when the vibrating alert was just shaking its way on to the scene, the company presented easy-to-use devices, such as the Pilot, which could handle documents, organise the day, and, synched with a mobile phone or computer, deal with emails.

While a Filofax may have got the average Joe so far, the true urban professional had to have a Palm in their pocket. It was by no means the first company to release a PDA, but Palm did it better than anyone else. Martin Lynch, editor of gadget website Gizmodo UK, says: "Without a doubt, Palm was king of the PDAs. They were by far the most popular devices." Caught up in the middle of the dotcom bubble, Palm was floated to great fanfare in March 2000, just four years after the first PalmPilot, by its parent company 3Com. At the end of its first day of trading, the company found itself valued at $53bn. Recent history, however, only seems to have brought bad news for Palm. The company, set up in 1992, suffered as greatly as anyone else when the bubble burst: having closed with a share price of $95 on the day that it launched, within two years it would struggle to rise regularly above $10.

However, it wasn't just financial woes that scuppered Palm's ascent: most damaging to the company's position as an industry leader was Research in Motion's introduction of the BlackBerry. Introduced as a two-way pager in 1999, the first BlackBerry smartphone launched in 2002, providing email on the go; the device quickly became the mainstay of the business user's pocket. It may not have been revolutionary – phones already dealt with emails – but what made it different was that the emails were sent to the phone straight away, "pushed", rather than having to be requested from the server, or "pulled". The range of phones became the weapon of choice for business users, satisfying their need to stay connected, and created a generation of suits addicted to their "CrackBerry".

The first Palm phones appeared in 2002 in the form of the Treo 180, and with the rest of Treo range as well as the Centro, it has continued to try to compete, although, tellingly, its phones are more likely to be labelled as a BlackBerry by the casual observer. While these phones have the features and functionality that one would expect of a smartphone, there is the perception that they have been boring. In terms of the shape and look of the phones, they have changed very little since 2002.

The PDA in the traditional sense has died out with the advance of mobile phones, but another Palm development that many may not have heard of was the Foleo. Imagined as a companion to its range of phones, the device, a small, stripped-down laptop, was dropped in September 2007. Ironically, had the company persevered, it could have been at the forefront of the netbook craze that seems to be sweeping the market.

The next challenge, however, came in the form of iPhone. With the Apple marketing machine it, and the fact that it was cool, the shiny, buttonless, intuitive iPhone is generally seen to have taken mobile phones to the next level. But the Palm Pre, to be released this spring, may be the brand's long-awaited saviour. Seemingly aimed at the market between the serious business user and gadget lover, the Pre has impressive specs, and is armed with an effective new Linux-based operating system, Palm Web OS.

Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, the device was a highlight of the event, stealing headlines and grabbing three CNET technology awards: Best in Show, Best in Category: Cell Phones & Smartphones and People's Voice. Kat Hannaford, the news editor of T3.com, tried it out. I was really impressed," she says. "The operating system shines through, and I think it is going to be huge competition for the iPhone, Blackberry and HTC." Ed Colligan, chief executive of Palm, believes that the Pre continues a grand tradition of Palm products. "Our products have always been about simplifying lives. The Palm Pre and webOS bring game-changing simplicity to an increasingly mobile world by dissolving the barriers that surround your information. It's technology that seems like it's thinking ahead to bring you what you care about most – your people, time, and information – in the easiest and most seamless way."

Chinks are appearing in the armour of the competition: RIM's BlackBerry Storm, has failed to lived up to expectations, with users complaining of glitches and poor features (although sales of over a million in the US alone have been confirmed); uncertainty surrounds Apple after the mishandling of issues surrounding Steve Jobs's health, and with no new iPhone announced at last month's Macworld summit, there is clearly a chance for someone else to take the initiative.

Google's first effort with HTC, the T-Mobile G1, may have delivered the content, but many felt it lacked in the aesthetic department, something Apple has shown to be as important as functionality. The Pre has also generated buzz on the web. Palm has been working hard on making the Pre stand out through its looks, but it has a robust user interface, and the sliding mechanism means it can accommodate the large screen and the buttons, as opposed to the Storm or iPhone. It also boasts wireless charger technology and much effort has been put into the operating system, webOS.

Nothing is guaranteed with smartphones. Delaying a device can be fatal, with the technology shifting so rapidly, while consumers will not be forgiving if the product is plagued by defects and bugs, especially if they have forked out for a hefty contract.

Rivals have perfected the art of marketing handsets, and, regardless of the quality of the product, some are questioning whether Palm will be able to generate enough publicity to make the Pre a success. Apple, notoriously zealous when it comes to protecting its inventions, has been flexing its muscles. When asked about the way in which rivals seem to have emulated many of the iPhone's properties and capabilities, its acting CEO, Tim Cook, said: "We don't mind competition, but if others rip off our intellectual property, we will go after them." Many believe this to be a reference to the Palm Pre, and with the confirmation of Apple's patent for "multitouch" capabilities, a court battle is likely.

Microsoft is also circling. Its Windows Mobile may be much maligned, but it still provides the software for many manufacturers, and a new version is in the works. Lynch nevertheless believes Palm could become a big player in the mobile-device market: "There's still a chance for Palm to come back. It has always had a good reputation and it has had a lot of positive publicity with the Pre. However, it's important to get a bug-free device out straight away."

Either way, Palm is again being talked about, and with rumours that Vodafone may get exclusivity with the Pre, the phone is being taken seriously. Will Palm become a big player again? Perhaps. Meanwhile, it is putting its efforts into getting back in important hands everywhere.

Then and now: A technological evolution

1996: Sony MZ-R30

The mini-disc enabled you to listen to and record music. The discs held 80 minutes of audio and eight hours playback.

1996: Canon PowerShot 600

The 600 had three megapixels and wrote images to hard disk. It was $949 (£609). It weighed 460g.

1996: Gameboy Pocket

Smaller, lighter version of the Gameboy and offered gamers the ability to connect with other players. True black and white screen.

2009: Ipod Classic

The Classic has a 120GB hard drive, capable of holding 30,000 songs, 150 hours of video and 25,000 photos. It weighs 140g and costs £175.

2009: Canon G10

Professional compact has 14.7-megapixels, a DIGIC 4 image processor, 5 x zoom lens and costs £499.

2009: Ds Lite

A dual, touch-screen console with Wi-Fi. Turn it into a mini-library with 100 classic novels. Wi-Fi connectivity means gamers can compete wirelessly. Around £97.79

Amy Oliver